You might be surprised by how many preachers are ready to give up on religion. A few years ago a study of professional ministry indicated that, among other things, three out of four members of the clergy regularly consider leaving the ministry. And a lot of that dissatisfaction is about the institution itself and trying to maintain the institution. And it’s not just the clergy who feel that stress. The lay leaders feel it as well. Every now and again a member of the Board of Stewards will finish her or his term and is never seen again. How is it that the very thing that is supposed to give us new life instead takes the little life we have left?
Now this might come as a shock to some, but Jesus was not a big fan of institutional religion. That is not to say that Jesus was not religious. He was a faithful, practicing Jew. But Jesus often challenged any religious practice or thought or expectation that got in way of personal transformation – something today’s Gospel lesson calls being “born again” or “born from above.”
Today’s Gospel lesson is a case in point. Once there was a man named Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee – a member of the professional religious establishment. Pharisees often get a bum wrap as hypocrites, but it was not always deserved. Some of them, perhaps most of them, were genuine in their desire to serve God and preserve a holy way of life – and they did that via the institution. And sometimes they got stuck there.
Nicodemus had heard about this exciting teacher named Jesus of Nazareth, who was teaching the old ways but with new vigor and insight. And Nicodemus was curious enough to want to meet this young man for himself. Now, he could have just shown up wherever Jesus was teaching or healing or feeding, but that might have been interpreted as collusion in an anti-establishment movement. So old Nick came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, where most of us do what we’re ashamed of.
So they meet. And notice that Jesus doesn’t call him out on his timing or timidity. He doesn’t tease or taunt him for sneaking around after dark, which leads me to believe that Jesus likes seekers, the curious, the doubters, no matter how or when or why they approach. (We should like them too.)
The conversation that ensues between them is confusing at best. Nicodemus is deferential and compliments Jesus. “Rabbi, we know you are from God because of what you do.” But Jesus ignores the compliment and instead immediately launches into the heart of his theology, which is not about the institution, but about a transformative experience of the Living God. When Nicodemus doesn’t understand how that is different from being religious, Jesus is rather impatient. “No, no Nicodemus, you’re trying to understand the Spirit through the institution. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about transformation. This is about water and Spirit and wind – all things that cannot be controlled; all metaphors for the way God works in the world. “But how can this be?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “We have an old and trusted way of understanding God.” And then Jesus reveals something absolutely astonishing about the character of God. He said: “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son…”
Well, that suddenly sounds like religion again, doesn’t it? That sounds like atonement theology. That sounds like a discussion of the Trinity. That sounds like the rules. That sounds like church!
Well, yes and no. It can sound like church as long as we are shoving Scripture through our own theological mold and the way it has always been done. And the way it has always been done is like this: when we speak of the Trinity, we use very human ideas like hierarchy and division of labor. And we rank the members. We talk about God the Almighty – sort of the most important member of the Trinity. And then there is Jesus Christ, God’s Son who is somehow a little lower because he mixed with humans. And then there is the Holy Spirit – and we don’t really know what to do with her, so we just sort of ignore her. And what we’re left with is an unchanging and non-dynamic theology that looks like an Old Master painting, with an old bearded man in the sky, Jesus on earth and a dove hovering around. And that hierarchical theology is the theology that the institution protects. It’s about power and one’s proper place. And it’s untenable.
Catholic priest and psychotherapist Richard Rohr has written extensively about how we understand God and how our theology creates the people we are. Rohr rejects the hierarchical view of the Trinity. Instead he references an ancient understanding of the Trinity based on the writings of the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers, in what is today modern Turkey. The Cappadocian Fathers didn’t speak of God as hierarchy, but as communion. And they used a word from the Greek theater to describe how God manifests in the world: perichoresis. It means, “circle dance” and implies that instead of rigid roles in the Trinity, there is dynamic movement. God’s manifestations are about relationship, not dominance or power. As Father Rohr likes to say, “In the beginning was relationship.”
Christians don’t believe in three Gods, but in one God manifesting in many different ways. And that means that there is no real differentiation between God, Christ and the Spirit. And if that’s true, then to say “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten son…” is not to say that God sent Junior to do the dirty work. It’s to say that God actually poured God’s self out on the cross. It’s to say that God chooses vulnerability as the way to save us.
The vulnerability of God has profound implications for the church in 21st century America. If you think about it, vulnerability is part of what compelled our congregation’s forbears to sell their building in 1969 with the specific intent to use the money to minister to the city’s poor. Gone was the institutional grandeur and in its place was the supremacy of meeting human need. Whether or not it was a good business decision is really beside the point. You don’t have to agree with it to see the beauty of it; the sheer audacity of its grace; the courage to let go of the trappings of power in order to imitate the God who was poured out like a sacrifice on a Roman cross.
One of the questions this congregation will be asked to answer in the near future is whether our congregation’s primary call is to preserve what we have into perpetuity or to give ourselves away in the service of others. It is by no means an easy question because it might mean the death of one way of doing things so that we might be raised to new life.
But death and life dance hand in hand. Being empty means that there is room for something new. And there is always more. God in Trinity shows us that. The Creator is poured in the Son. The Son flows into the Spirit. The Spirit runs back into the Creator. One thing empties and another is filled. There is movement and life and new energy.
Vulnerability – God’s or ours - is not about weakness. It’s about flow and movement and trust and giving and receiving and death and resurrection. It’s about being born again, and again, and again. And it has very little to do with the trappings of religion.